This week, Jennifer Haley’s Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winning futuristic crime thriller The Nether will make its London premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in a co-production with the acclaimed theatre company Headlong, under the direction of its Artistic Director Jeremy Herrin.
Jennifer Haley’s exclusive article for Official London Theatre below reveals just how the American playwright came to write the disturbing adult drama about a detective who discovers a new brand of virtual entertainment and why even Haley herself was surprised by the direction it ended up taking.
When I feel a new play coming on, I assign myself a challenge. Usually something abstract, mental, almost dry. For The Nether, I started with a mentor’s advice to “write what you hate”. As I have a particular abhorrence of hackneyed television crime procedurals in the vein of CSI, I wondered what would happen if I tried to write a procedural for the stage.
In my head, I set up an imaginary interrogation scene. I saw a woman questioning a man. What might be the “crime” involved, I wondered. As I was already interested in topics of video gaming and online identities, and working as a web designer and coder, I began to think it could be some kind of virtual offence. Perhaps in a realistic environment made possible by future technology. What could you do there that was awful enough to get you in serious legal trouble? The answer of course was crimes against children, which led quickly to the final twist: what if no one involved is actually a child?
Oddly enough (in retrospect), this was all supposed to be for a 10-minute play I intended to write for a backyard performance festival my roommates and I were producing at our home in North Hollywood. I never started that version because my father became ill. He had struggled with alcoholism for much of his life and died soon afterward of liver failure. It was an entire year later that I sat down to write the play, which I now knew would be full-length. I spent a month on the first draft as part of a writing challenge sponsored by my group in Los Angeles, The Playwrights Union, and the story finally came out with the interrogation room, the moral questions I’d been contemplating, my anguish over losing someone to addiction, and all kinds of surprises like the title, the Victorian realm, finding a key additional character in a little girl.
I did not conduct initial research, but I believe we writers, when we clear our minds, become a channel for the zeitgeist, and it was startling even for me to discover how many contemporary questions were opened in that first draft. Each time I took the play through a round of development, my colleagues would bring in a wealth of articles about virtual technology, crime cases involving online identity, judicial questions of privacy versus security, government and corporate control of cyberspace, pornography and paedophilia. I’ve continually sought to integrate salient concepts from current events into the text, even down to rewriting some sections for the London premiere based on feedback from a “security” employee of a social media site and a psychotherapist for delinquent behaviour who came to speak to us during our first week of rehearsal.
The Nether has taken me on a fantastic journey – both conceptual and literal – and it’s been incredibly gratifying to find so many dramatists and audience members willing to work through the dangerous subject matter and engage with the deeper questions of the play.
The Nether plays at the Royal Court Theatre until 9 August. You can book tickets through the Royal Court Theatre’s website.
Jennifer Haley will also be in conversation with criminal psychologist Anthony Beech at the theatre on Friday 25 July at 18:15. Visit the Royal Court Theatre website for full details.